History of New Zealand Winemaking

At first glance, the history of wine in New Zealand looks very short. Wines made from classic European grape varieties have only been widely available since the 1980s, yet the grapevine was a common sight in the early colonists’ gardens. By the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the first recorded New Zealand wine was already bottled. Wine has in fact has a long and fascinating history in New Zealand.

An old photo of a person working at Te Motu Vineyard
Te Motu Vineyard
It wasn't until around 1836 that the first grapes were bought into New Zealand by James Busby, New Zealand's British Resident and very keen 'amateur' winemaker. The oldest existing vineyard was established by the Roman Catholic Missionaries in the Hawke's Bay, Mission Estate. While grapes were certainly grown and wine was produced in New Zealand, it was mostly for religious use or family consumption rather than as a principle income
This changed in the 1960's when a group of changes took place;
  • New Zealanders had become a nation of travellers. They had experienced the diverse cultural regions of Europe with the wine and food harmony that is often present and wanted to see the same in New Zealand. 
  • Dalmatian immigrants who originally migrated to New Zealand to work in the Northland gum fields had moved to the rural areas that surrounded Auckland. There they set up orchards, vineyards, and wineries to supply the local market.
  • These families had created the fledgling viticulture industry and now started planting Viniferatable wine vines (wine grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay). They began planting in new areas based on the vine's viticulture requirements rather than the previous regimes of planting close to the markets.
  • New Zealand had a very strong dairy industry so were accustomed to managing large volumes of liquid in sterile conditions along with the use of refrigeration.
  • Young winemakers were travelling and working in European, American and Australian wineries and bringing back the skills they learnt. This created a combination of “Old World” traditional European winemaking and science-based “New World” winemaking that was being developed in the USA and Australia.
  • Liquor Licensing laws in New Zealand were being changed and relaxed, particularly around the consumption of wine with food in restaurants. The development of BYO restaurants had a huge effect.
  • New Zealand's innovative approach to problem solving meant lots of small wineries were created based on a dream to make wine and went on to be successful businesses.
Sir George Fistonich at Villa Maria
By the early 1980's Marlborough's grape-growing potential had been discovered. The previously widely planted grape Muller Thurgau was being replaced by Sauvignon Blanc, and the UK had discovered New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
In the last 50 years that initial success in the UK has translated into a $1.9 billion annual global export earnings with over 41,603 hectares of vineyard of which 26,559 hectares are Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand wine quality levels are very high and wines command premium prices internationally, but New Zealand is still a small industry by world standards, producing just 1% of the world’s wine.
Internationally New Zealand’s wine reputation is based around the pungent zingy flavours and textures of Sauvignon Blanc which has so successfully made a home here.
New Zealand has developed a style and brand of Sauvignon Blanc that is recognised as an expression of New Zealand and its image overseas is iconic and instantly recognisable.  All of this of this has taken place in a very short period of around 50 years, which in terms of viticulture development is almost a blink in time.

Timeline of New Zealand Winemaking


  • First vines planted in Northland ​


  • James Busby produces New Zealand’s first wine at Waitangi ​


  • New immigrants from Europe arrive and set up vineyards in Canterbury and Nelson ​


  • New Zealand government commissions a report on the prospects of winegrowing in New Zealand encouraging a rush to plant vines ​


  • New Zealand government invests in research, viticulture and phylloxera-resistant vines. Total area under vine is 387 hectares, producing 4.1 million litres ​


  • New immigrants from Europe arrive and enthusiasm for food and wine increases ​


  • The demand for quality wine increases and many hybrid vines are replaced with classical varieties that are grafted to phylloxera-resistant rootstock ​


  • Montana sets up in Marlborough and this region becomes the largest grape-growing area of New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc as a premium variety 


  • The New Zealand wine industry begins to promote itself overseas​


  • 130 registered wineries with total vineyard area of 6,000 hectares and total production of 57.7 million litres.
  • New Zealand wines achieve export success in Europe, the USA and Asia ​


  • 64% of all wine exports are to the UK ​


  • First wine industry to establish a nationwide sustainability programme​


  • 358 registered wineries, area under vine has doubled within 10 years ​


  • Screwcap initiative launched to promote and educate producers on the benefits of  screwcap closure as a quality alternative to cork ​


  • New Zealand exports to the UK, the USA and Australia reach over NZ$200 million ​


  • New Zealand Wine exports exceed NZ $1 billion in value​


  • New Zealand wine exports reach a record-breaking $2 billion


  • 744 registered wineries with a total producing area of 41,603 hectares. Total production reaches 383 million litres and exports at NZ$1.9 billion in value 
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